by Hayley Ann Solomon
This is a story that needs to be told, though I’ve hesitated in the telling, because at times it seems surreal as a dream, memories drifting in vague waves of euphoria and despair; the greens and golds of the landscape blending with the stark blackness of night. Black without stars, without moon, so pitch it’s impossible to describe.
The story I tell is true. It’s imbued with irony, piercing fear, stark love, hilarity, and utter loneliness: cornerstones of life, but distilled. Four unforgettable days. Love, hope, and a lingering glance at the face of death.
My story begins where most self-respecting romance stories end—with a wedding. A beautiful, picture perfect affair; the bride is bedecked like a fairy creature in thousands of snippets of ice white lace. Excited, and joined at last with the man of her dreams.
It all happens in a blur. I remember little, except a sense of euphoria, a moment of stark commitment and a general, snowy, dream-like haze that only clears when my veil is lifted.
I bubble as brightly as my drink, but shall gloss over these details. The wedding acts only as the frame in which my tale is wrought, not the tale itself. The memoir spans the days after—my honeymoon.
Convention dictates that honeymoons are pleasant. Entertainment is arranged, not sought, food served, not bought. One floats upon sun soaked waves, drifting and dreaming. And I think this is where we made our first mistake.
I’m still not sure where the idea first materialised, but we thought it romantic to pony trek in Lesotho – a land that is that is both land locked and dry. To do ourselves justice, the pamphlet was fringed in pink and had all the little catch phrases required of a honeymoon brochure. I specifically noticed, “You will fly over the Roof of Africa…. breathtaking sunrises….adorable ponies”. Possibly my imagination runs ahead of me. In hindsight, not even a lying, thoroughly disreputable travel merchant could have used the appellation adorable. The brochure was an enticing little document. We didn’t pause to speculate on the fact that Africa has no “roof” until it was far, far too late.
In Maseru on the morning after the wedding, breathless with anticipation (and other pleasant marital diversions) we’re ready at the very crack of dawn. Clive checks I have my glasses—I’m scatty enough to forget them. I reflect how fortunate I am to have married someone who can think for me.
“And your hat?” he asks.
I am smug. For once, I’ve forgotten nothing. Neatly pinioned to my pack is a crimson, oversized, ridiculous-looking fold up hat. One twist and it springs opens, looking rather like a misshapen umbrella. It’s a precious possession. Irreplaceable. It comprehensively shields my pale, sun-sensitive English skin.
I nod. He checks. He smiles. We wait.
We are amiable people, but after several hours shifting from one foot to the other, our patience is exhausted. “Lesotho time, Lesotho time!” we’re told amid toothy grins. Apparently, the concept of time and the country of Lesotho are antithetical and oxymoronic in nature.
I’m weary by the time we’re finally collected. Boredom’s no balm to the soul and is anathema to the nails. By now, my carefully manicured, pink tipped wedding buds are chewed down to the cuticles
There’s a man in a truck. He grunts. Gesticulates to a pungent, aromatic ledge. This we share with one goat, a series of chickens and a suspicious looking dog. There are horse blankets and the odd bit of straw. We don’t mind. We’re on our way and surely an adventure is better than tedium.
It does not take long to discover: I’m wrong.
We are now out of contact with the outside world (no cell phones, no landlines, not even telegrams). We’re in the hands of a lunatic truck driver who takes the bends of each hill with the satisfaction of a Ferrari driver. The truck is not Ferrari accredited. It sheds bits of metal as we lumber forward. It flings smoke into the pristine air like thick spirals of choking ghosts. I acclimatise to the shattering grind of brakes on steel.
Sadly, stupidly, our water bottles are empty. No bubbling brooks, no sparkling streams. I taste dryness in my mouth, encrusting my lips with sand. I put on my hat. It’s the only control I have.
“Nice hat,” the guide mutters, as he does something with the chickens and ignores the goat and the dog. He’s finally said something pleasant! I wink at Clive and he grins. We’re on the crest of something. It’s a hill, actually, but high. From where I sit, it looks like a very large, green mountain. I see several more, stretching to the horizon. They undulate with brown roads that twist lazily round their rims.
At last, I think, the untouched Africa we’ve craved. Magical. I’m strangely comforted. The sun’s now high, casting bright light on the edges of this world. We clamber off the truck and meet our ponies. They are hardy creatures, short, squat, with brown eyes set with pale, white irises. They regard us without interest as they flick sun-dappled tails.
“Nice horsey,” I say, nervous. I look around. “Where are the others?”
“You late!” The guide stabs his finger accusingly. We suppress the obvious retort that this was not our fault and scramble onto the beasts. The road to Semongkong seems beautiful, if breathtakingly long.
“Haia!” Whipped by a sudden stick to their backsides, the ponies accelerate. Not upon the undulating road, but straight down the precipice. Physics, velocity and gravity spring into action. Sunglasses fly from my face.
“Wait!” I yell.
Too late. The pony behind me stands on them with a predictable crunch. I look back to see one lens crushed and a temple dismembered. Blinded by the glare and dazzled by the sudden rush of sunlight, I see nothing more.
Straight down the mountain we race, stones flying in our wake, prickles prickling legs, flies attaching tenaciously and insisting upon the ride. I can’t brush them off, they stick to the sweat on my brow. My hands are full. They clutch saddle for dearest life.
We didn’t ride the ponies, they rode us. On and on, hour after hour. No water, no stream, no stops.
I won’t discuss the state of my bottom. A bride must be permitted some pride. I’ll say only that the saddle was hard. My hair was a tangle of wind and grass. Not romantic, but intrepid.
I wave to Clivey to indicate I’m okay. We can’t talk—our ponies don’t understand double file. He doesn’t wave back. I should’ve realised there was a problem. Instead, I blithely cling to my reins, congratulating myself on survival.
As dusk tinges the skies a curious pink, we arrive. Where, I’m not sure. There are a few scattered people, two mud hats thatched with straw, and a flat piece of open land, charred from fire. Clivey looks pale. This, despite scorching heat that had already turned him a peeling, lobster red.
“You alright?” I whisper. He shakes his head.
The guide accosts me with a flurry of poking, pointing, and broken English. I’m bewildered.
“Fee,” he says.
“Fee?” I ask, confused. Everything is meant to be included.
“Chief’s protection.” He gesticulates vaguely. Squatting in the dust, smiling a toothless smile is an inebriated bearded man.
“He chief. You give beer.”
“I don’t have beer,” I object. The guide’s eyes narrow. He regards me with even more disgust.
Now the air is pregnant with disapproval. There’s a silence.
“You give money. Chief protect you.”
I translate silently. He might as well have uttered the menacing corollary that springs to my receptive and fertile imagination: You not give money, chief kill you.
I sigh. Pay. Meekly.
With sickening clarity I realise we’re not to be “guests of the villagers”, as per brochure. I look at my husband, who looks half dead. In fact, he is half dead. It is many years later that he’s diagnosed, but I don’t need a diagnosis to understand he’s sick. Desperately so. If he’s stopped checking on me, he’s sick. He told me he can’t move and I believe him.
“No further,” he says, and no further, indeed, can we go.
I bribe the guide—again—and he permits us use of the hut. Nine people emerge from the tiny dwelling and disappear into deepening shadow.
There’s a single bed, balancing on baby formula tins. Apparently, so long as the bed doesn’t physically touch the floor, we’re safe from the tokolosh, some frighteningly evil thing. I stare at the tins providing this service. It’s Africa’s irony that in a place of extreme poverty, where breast milk is free, babies are fed almost exclusively on food aid. I’m too anxious to ponder this. My husband of a few days doesn’t look good.
There’s no toilet, or blankets. Or food.
Much later we understand that the lack of food is probably the single factor saving his life. By morning, his body sugars levels will reduce below danger and the subsequent exercise will keep him from a diabetic coma.
On another bone wearying day, we stop at a dry creek where there’s just enough to water the ponies and slowly fill our bottles. The creatures are innocent looking beasts with the stubbornness of gods. Where there’s a maize field, they stop and eat. Nothing convinces them to move on, not even the zealous brandishing of sticks. We’re universally unpopular with farmers we pass on our travels. I think if we hadn’t paid the chief’s “protection”, murder would be a likely scenario.
Of my hat, there’s now no sign. Day two and it’s mysteriously vanished, like mist in summer sunshine. When I question the guide, he lays open the palms of his hands and shrugs, an odd gleam behind his smile. I let the matter drop.
As evening approaches, we dispense lolly-loot. Four delighted children become eight, and eight, sixteen. Soon hundreds of little hands appear from nowhere. Children grubby, threadbare, brown as caked mud, but happy. Their eyes sparkle. Their smiles are infectious. They point to my blonde hair and laugh. Some daring urchins touch me. They rapidly retreat, giggling. All the reasons we chose this trip come rushing back. This is Africa, untouched by civilisation, raw and achingly beautiful.
Darkness creeps in and a thousand stars blanket the skies, but brightness is elusive. The moon’s a mere sliver. Clouds cloak the sky in inky blackness, making the children small shadows, silhouettes with round eyes and ice teeth set in the brownness of their faces.
There’s a tranquility, and a waiting. The grasshoppers chirrup and there’s a low hum or buzz, from where or what I’m still not sure.
I remember that the evening is New Year’s Eve. I wonder what possible impact this could have. Here, out of context, in the place where time stands still. None, I suspect. Time is mostly a manmade phenomenon; certainly, the emphasis placed on time. Time here seems based on the mechanics of the universe, the revolution of the earth around the sun, the fluctuations of day and night, seasons on season. For a moment, I’m envious. Africa marches to a different tune and though it is not ours, it’s wondrous.
As it happens, time, apparently, does matter.
We’re huddled in our tent, asleep. A strange aberration, to sleep at eight in the evening, but it’s darker than pitch and impossible to see. We’ve none of the usual diversions. We’re physically exhausted and in a strange limbo of shock, dehydration, diabetes, muscle pain, and stoic stubbornness.
We’re at the mercy of a surly guide, unwilling ponies, and the universe. So alien is our landscape we might be on the surface of the moon. All contact with the outside world is breached. We sleep, but our sleep is not easy.
The spectre of snakes haunt me. On a chill night, I’m conscious we must be emanating warmth, our very humanity a calling card. I try very hard to ignore this, as I nestle in my husband’s arms and concentrate on love and the comfort it brings.
We’re drifting, half in, half out of sleep, when a sound different from the twitters of the night shifts into our consciousness. It’s faintly pleasant, and I feel myself smile. The sound of bells, faint but ever truer. I feel the moment Clive changes from light slumber to panicked awareness.
“New Year!” he says.
“Yes?” I still can’t make the connection, though the bells are growing louder. I think I hear distant voices. It does not take long for them to seem less distant. They coalesce in my waking brain to song. Song and cowbells. My eyes don’t adjust.
“They’re celebrating Yew Year,” he yells out, as if he’s just solved a clever puzzle.
“They’re herding their cows down this track!”
“A bit different from Times Square,” I murmur.
Clivey seems stressed. He jumps up. “We’ve pitched on the only bit of flat land for miles and they can’t see us. They don’t know we’re here.”
“Oh.” Danger dawns. The noise is almost deafening by now. “What can we do?”
There’s a resigned pause. “Nothing.”
It’s not long before the pungent scent of bulls pass our way, compounded by drunken song and the clanging of bells, loud and intense. They so narrowly miss, I wince, half-expecting impact.
It is dawn, and the skies glow pink with welcome.
We emerge from our tent. It is snowing. I blink, for December’s notoriously hot here. Snowflakes are everywhere, with brown sand and tufts of sun-flecked grass peeking silently through the white. I focus and laugh. Thousands of the white lolly wrappers litter the ground. Lesotho’s not known for dustbins.
Our final day is the quest for Semongkong. I’ve never heard of Semongkong before, and have never heard of it since, but on this trip, the word is like holy grail. At Semongkong we’re to relinquish our ponies—did I mention that they could bite?— and fly, with the wings of an eagle, over the roof of Africa. Here, I exaggerate and admit it. We were to fly, not with the wings of eagles, but with Air Lesotho to Maseru. Maseru, with its higgledy hotel, seems a veritable metropolis.
Endless hours pass in the rhythms of the ponies and the faint flickers of the sun-brushed maize. I’m lost in contemplation. A low series of clicking noises and several “haais!” and the beasts halt in their tracks.
I can see nothing but more undulating hills and the slight crisping of burnt grass, yellow amid verdant greens. My eyes follow the guide’s and I begin seeing what he is seeing. A snake, slithering toward us in golds and browns. Long, and slow, and sickening. My heart stops. I feel fate’s pull drawing my gaze to the creature. Somehow, some subliminal part of my consciousness, has always known my destiny.
The guide draws out his stick and quick as lightening twirls the snake high, high above his head. He manages several twists before flinging the creature into the far grasses.
I’m both shattered and relieved. I now know, for a certainty, that there’s a snake in the brush. When I came to think of it, there must be hundreds. I shudder and will myself to continue. Now, the grasses are both sleeping and weeping, lush and alive, imbuing Africa with stark beauty, yet hiding and housing the serpent. Clouds dim the sky, but still there is no sign of water, or a drenching, relieving rain.
The minutes are hours and the hours days. We arrive, at last, at Semongkong. There’s an airport. Entirely unfurnished except for one fixed bench, but it has timetables and I don’t think I’ve ever felt such pleasure. The guide and his ponies recede to patches of dust in the distance.
The timetables are eleven years, three months out of date. The toilet does not work, and neither does the tap. We take in the silence, and do not see another human. The loneliness deafens. We inspect every inch of the room, from the metal bench fixed to the floor with screws, to the half torn timetable. We read ancient health advisories. We wander outside, then in. We ruffle through packs and use them as pillows. We sit up and slouch down. We try to talk, but mostly we are silent.
Time passes, and as is the way in this land, one loses sight of its passage. Presently a fat lady appears, blanketed in red. Upon her head sits the most glorious turban, all yellows and pinks, swirled about with green. She bustles officiously with brush and pan. She ignores us, as though we’re merely part of some distant landscape.
“Dumela?” we try.
Silence. She dangles long, metal keys on a plastic ring in front of our faces.
“Five o’clock. Me go home.”
We’ve received eviction notices. Dust to dust. Our parents might wonder, but they’d never know. I place my pack on the ground, walk to the non-functioning toilet and for the first time, weep. I cry, truly cry, so hard my lungs crush my ribs, my heart wrenches, and I can’t force the sound from my throat.
My world splinters and all I can see is death, thirst, and despair. I wipe my eyes on a sleeve and walk out, towards the only person on this earth who I love with a fierceness I cannot convey.
I hold his hand and he holds mine.